Carolyn Salvador's blood would boil when she watched the children pile into the Hyundai -- two in the front seat, unbuckled, about four in the back -- and then be driven off to an after-school karate program, caution to the wind.
Salvador, then owner of a Duluth child development center, said the children were under the auspices of an unlicensed daycare that not only competed with her more qualified business by offering cut rates, but unwittingly ushered the kids into harm's way.
"Parents had no idea they were unlicensed. They just thought they were cheaper -- a better bargain," said Salvador, Georgia Child Care Association executive director. "Of course, it was because (the caretakers) didn't have the cost of adhering to any regulations."
The scenario represents what Salvador and other child advocates call a troubling trend in Georgia -- the degradation of quality care for children.
In light of recent child deaths across the country, in Georgia and Gwinnett, child advocates are warning parents of the inherent risks of unlicensed child care facilities, home daycares and summer camps, especially as summer dawns, schools break and an economic malaise has contributed to the shuttering of 600 reputable child care centers in Georgia.
"The number of quality centers is down, and more parents have fewer options and are feeling financially pressured to leave their kids in care situations that may be unsuitable -- even dangerous -- in order to make ends meet," said Pam Tatum, CEO of Atlanta-based Quality Care for Children. "Ultimately, it's the kids who pay the price."
Advocates point to high-profile cases involving child fatalities as the ultimate in regulatory failures. For instance:
This week, a daycare provider in Riverside, Calif. was charged with murdering a 1-year-old girl who suffered fatal head trauma at the woman's home.
A Georgia licensing agency has launched an investigation into a home daycare fire in Columbus that burned three children and killed one boy earlier this year.
And in Gwinnett, a Buford woman was indicted last week on charges of contributing to the delinquency, unruliness or deprivation of a minor that stem from the drowning of a 2-year-old boy she was employed to babysit last year.
The boy, one of three being cared for on March 19, wandered into Tanya Moon's pool and drowned as she used the restroom, authorities said. (Moon is not charged with operating an unlicensed facility, and her attorney, Rand Csheny, vehemently denied this week that his client's licensing status played any role in the death).
But in a report obtained by the Daily Post, police at the scene of Moon's Bradford Walk Trail home noted "extremely unsafe conditions" that the victim's mother had urged Moon's husband to remedy, the report says.
Responding police found the "dirty" pool uncovered, a broken trampoline "with several large metal poles sticking out of it," and a dying Pug dog named "Breeze" that had been fatally mauled by the family's pit bull, "Boomer," as Moon tried to save the boy's life, the report says.
Investigators said Moon watched the children on a daily basis, though she was not a licensed child caretaker, as the state requires.
Quality Care for Children insists the effects of lingering economic doldrums are trickling down to Georgia's toddlers.
A survey released by the group last month shows about 600 child care centers closed last year in Georgia. The number of nationally accredited centers statewide has dropped 27 percent since 2008, the group found.
The reason? More parents are unable to afford high-quality care and are opting for less-pricey, sometimes dicier alternatives.
"Less than 6 percent of children are in what we would consider high-quality care," said Theresa Prestwood, the group's director of development and marketing. "Child care programs operate at a very low profit margin ... if you're not full, you're going to struggle."
Heavy regulation comes at a price for caretakers, creating what Salvador called "quite a quandary" for reputable centers.
Studies show New York -- the most heavily regulated state -- is also the nation's most expensive for infant care, with annual costs exceeding $13,000. At about $7,000, Georgia is the ninth most affordable, the Georgia Child Care Association has found.
Salvador stressed that unlicensed care isn't synonymous with poor or dangerous conditions. But children in unlicensed situations are 1.7 times more likely to die or be seriously injured, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
"In unlicensed care, there is no oversight -- no CPR and first aid, no insurance, no background checks" unless the provider qualifies for a license exemption, Salvador said. "They're just out there hanging a shingle."
Salvador said certain loopholes that haven't been updated for two decades allow after-school programs and summer camps to operate without a license. Officials with Bright From the Start, the state's licensing agency, were not available for comment Friday, a representative said.
Awareness is key
It's difficult to quantify how many arrests or citations have been issued by Gwinnett law enforcement in recent years based on improper child care, said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly. The department's special victim's unit investigates caretakers based on complaints filed with Bright From the Start, who visits each location yearly, he said.
An unlicensed child care home can legally watch a limit of two children for pay. Licensed home child care providers can watch up to six children for pay -- with a maximum group size, including their own children, of 12, Kelly said.
"We're always mindful of situations that can be abused or easily taken advantage of," Kelly said.
As for parental advice, Kelly offered:
"If it doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't right for your child," he said. "Do your homework, do research ... It's always advisable for a parent or other guardian to plan, to and make unannounced visits to the location, ask to inspect the premises, and inquire about the person or facility's emergency plans (and) training," he said.
Salvador concurs that inquisitive parents are a good first line of defense.
"I would hope that (parents) really understand what quality looks like," she said. "I want them to understand that when they're putting their most prized possession in the hands of others ... that licensed care is very important."